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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Masterworks of German Horror
The Masterworks of German Horror
Elite // Unrated // January 1, 2000
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Chris Hughes | posted March 6, 2000 | E-mail the Author
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Features: Full Screen (Standard) - 1.33:1. Audio Tracks: English (Silent) (Dolby Digital 2.0). Contains Three Masterworks of Silent German Horror Cinema: Nosferatu, Der Golem and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Still Galleries: including original poster art, lobby cards and more. Extensive liner notes.

The Movie:
Expressionism in general and German Expressionism in particular was an incredibly influential movement on all the genres it touched from painting and sculpture to stage production, still photography and film. The basic tenant of Expressionism is that shapes and compositions can represent psychological states. This simple premise lead to some of the most evocative and enigmatic works of art ever produced by mankind.

German Expressionism had its most profound and lasting influence on film where it effectively changed the visual language and provided directors with an entirely new set of tools. These tools gave rise to a string of films that continue to influence moviemakers to this day. Chief among the early masterpieces of German Expressionist film was a trio of innovative supernatural horror titles that pushed the new visual language to its very limits. The results were both striking and unforgettable. The latest addition to Elite's already voluminous catalogue of horror titles is a collection of these three films: The Masterworks of German Horror. The two disc set includes Nosferatu (1922), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and The Golem (1915).

Nosferatu:
Nosferatu is perhaps the best known of the three films and the most successful in terms of seamlessly integrating Expressionist elements (the other two use sets and costumes that are overt to the point of distraction IMHO.) The story is a direct adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula and features an amazing performance by Max Schreck. Schreck's Dracula is more rat than man with eerily hollow eyes, sharp teeth, pointy ears and a pasty white complexion. Elite's transfer of this film is better than anything I've seen on broadcast TV or VHS. The film elements are battered by age but look very crisp if overly dark. The sound track is a modern score created specifically for the film and is unobtrusive at best. At worst the modern sounding themes are a little incongruous and took me out of the film from time to time. It's my understanding that hardcore fans of Nosferatu consider the Image Entertainment DVD definitive (it has a longer running time: 81 Vs 64 minutes) but having never seen it I'm in no position to draw a comparison.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari:
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the most unabashedly Expressionist of the three films. Everything from the sets and props to the actors costumes and makeups are a direct reflection of the story line. Caligari is a beautifully composed picture and very satisfying in all respects. It concerns a somnambulist (sleepwalker) who, at the bidding of his evil master Dr. Caligari goes on a murder spree and terrorizes the town. The transfer here is about what one would expect with 80-year-old film elements. There's a lot of damage but the movie looks better than I've ever seen it. The original sound track comes from an early German re-release and is extremely scratchy, exhibits a severe lack of dynamic range and is buried under a great deal of hiss. Those factors can be easily discounted though and I found them not at all distracting. As with Nosferatu, Dr. Caligari fans point out that the Image Entertainment version of the film is preferred. The Image DVD runs eleven minutes longer and employs the color tinting that was used in the films initial release. Again, having never seen the Image disc I can't comment on which one is better.

The Golem:
The Golem is the least known of the three films, primarily because distribution has been very limited. I'd read about this film in several texts but had never seen more than a handful of stills. The story is based on Jewish folklore and concerns a mystic's creation and animation of a mud man. The Golem had a direct influence on Universal's Frankenstein and contains a number of set pieces that will be instantly familiar to any Karloff fan. The transfer is about the same as the other two. The main problem is damaged source material but the DVD shows good sharpness and contrast with no noticeable artifacting or edge effects. There is no soundtrack with this title.

The Extras:
A small gallery of images accompanies each film showing original publicity materials and production stills. The Dr. Caligari disc contains a clip from another German Expressionist film and the printed booklet includes an interesting and informative essay on the history of Expressionist films in general and these films in particular.

Conclusion:
The Masterworks of German Horror may not be a reference quality DVD but it does a fine job of presenting three extraordinary films. Elite has taken a lot of criticism for not living up to their own high standards and I'd have to agree with that sentiment at least in part. The lack of a sound track for The Golem is inexcusable and both Nosferatu and Dr. Caligari would have benefited from more comprehensive source material and original projection speeds. In addition Elite could have placed all three of these films on one disc or, failing that, could have pumped up the extra content to more fully justify a two disc set. In the end The Masterworks of German Horror should be a great addition to the libraries of casual film fans with an interest in early horror and Expressionist works. Hardcore fans will be better served comparing the various releases of these films on DVD and VHS.
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